Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

The Summer of Difficult Books
Book 2 – Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
638 pages (Library of America edition)

Difficulty Index:
Length: 6/10
Diction / Syntax: 7/10
Stylistic Features: 7/10
Background Knowledge Required: 6/10
Era: American Renaissance

Most of the best memories I have of working at a bookstore involve either ridiculous customer stories, or even better, discussions, arguments, or ruminations with fellow booksellers. We argued about how long a book needed to be in print before it could be called a “classic.” We discussed whether French or Russian literature was the superior. We ruminated on alternate ways to organize the store’s books. Should “Biography” be a section or should those books be organized by the subject’s field? One of my favorite discussions involved finding the unintentionally dirtiest book titles. One comment from a close friend and former colleague went like this, “If an author can’t say what he needs to say in fewer than 200 pages, then he just shouldn’t say it.”

This friend had a way of making these very types of comments with a wry smile on his face, knowing that he shouldn’t be taken seriously, but the comment stuck with me. Some of the most “taught” books are right about at that 200-page mark. Of course, this would exclude some of my favorite books from being published, such as East of Eden, Pillars of the Earth, Underworld, and several others. Save for maybe one book, it would leave Thomas Pynchon out of a job. This argument really gets to heart of why people write. Is it to entertain? To inform? To exorcise demons? Or is it, as my friend hinted at, to prove a point? Though I am only on the second book of this summer quest, I can confidently say that Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick pretty much deflates my friend’s theory in a number of ways. Additionally, it answers all of the above questions as to why one writes.

Chances are, even if you have never read a single page of this infamous tome, you are somewhat familiar with aspects of the book. You may have heard of the name Captain Ahab, for instance. Or, if you’re alive in the world, you’ve heard the name of Ahab’s chief mate, because it has become the most ubiquitous name brand in the country, Starbuck(s). Several films and television movies have been made from the story, not to mention other books and films written about the real-life events that inspired Melville.

(In fact, in the spirit of bookseller stories, I happen to have one concerning Moby-Dick. While working at the Bookstar in Santa Monica (which was eventually relocated to its current 3rd Street Promenade location in the mid-90’s), a customer came in with only about 5 minutes left of open hours. I was newly promoted to supervisor and still had angst about all of the closing procedures, especially for such a large store. This customer came directly to me and asked me for two books, a biography of Miles Davis and Moby-Dick. We had a brand new in-house edition of the latter book with classic illustrations and he had wanted a copy. I helped the customer and we had a lengthy talk about Miles Davis while I found him the former book on his list. As I returned to the cashier counter and the customer checked out and left, I noticed that he stepped into a Bentley and sped off in to the hazy Los Angeles night. It was only later, after my coworkers started grilling me about our conversation, that I realized I had been helping Nicolas Cage, who had apparently been interested in adapting the Melville book into a film. That film never materialized, but I’d like to think that it exists in some alternate universe.)

Strangely, Moby-Dick is one of the few novels in existence in which everyone seems to know the story by its final chapter. Spoiler alerts have long since expired. You could, of course, have been peppered with a primer while watching Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn, in which the titular villain spouts, Ahab-like, passages from the book as he pursues his white whale, The Starship Enterprise / Captain Kirk, who left him stranded some two decades prior. One Pavlovian memory I had, as I neared the end of the book, was as I read the passage, “There she blows! A hump like a snow hill It is Moby Dick!” (1378). I was able to track down where I heard it, at the age of 14, here. Most of all, people will likely be familiar with the novel’s iconic opening line, “Call me Ishmael.”

I will often use this line as an example for close reading. In just three words, Melville’s narrator is both mysterious and unreliable. He doesn’t say, “My name is Ishmael,” which would be much more definitive. No. Rather, he says, “Call me Ishmael,” which implies that Ishmael may not be the narrator’s actual name. From the first three words the entire remaining narrative is in doubt. This is only one of the genius moves by Melville throughout this book. Ahab is a Shakespearean figure, unrivalled in most of the literature that followed. His pronouncements toward the end of the book, some to himself, some to his crew, and one stellar example to Starbuck, are powerfully written. Extraordinarily, Ahab is not even in the book all that often.

In fact, the “action” of the book, that is the pursuance of the White Whale, only takes up about 20% of the entire novel. The rest of the book, which at first I thought I would find tedious, exemplifies the exquisite craft of Melville. Usually attributed to Mark Twain, the quotation “Write what you know” easily applies to Melville. His experience as a hand on at least three separate whaling ships in the 1840’s did much to inform his later writing. Chapters in which Melville describes the types of ropes used, the accuracy of artists’ renderings of whales, the bone structure of whales, the biological features of whales (one chapter for each feature), and a lengthy comparison of sperm whales with right whales all display the author’s extensive knowledge of a little known subject at the time. While some may find these chapters may slow down the narrative, I found that each section built up the scope, size, and magnitude of the ship’s prey to make the denouement that much more intense.

Other than a few passages that haven’t aged well in terms of racism or sexism, I adored this book. After Ulysses, its prose was far easier to manage, though at times challenging enough. One can easily ignore the specific terminology of whaling ships, as they do not readily affect the meaning of the narrative. Additionally, Melville gives you enough explanation of the really tricky terminology, so don’t worry about footnotes or looking up ship schematics beforehand. I still don’t know a mizzen from a forecastle, but the context helped quite a bit. (Yes, I know what they are now.) While Ulysses may be impenetrable to many readers, Moby-Dick is accessible and a beautiful example of prose craft. I was almost steered away from this project after that first difficult book, but as I got deep into this second novel, Melville himself reassured me to keep going when he wrote, “I try all things; I achieve what I can” (1163). In speaking to one of my summer book club members, a retired teacher with a lot of reading under his belt, I admitted that I eventually plowed through Ulysses with the idea that I would just pick up what I could and hang on to things I understood. He nodded exuberantly and said, “That’s exactly the right thing to do. That’s what real readers do.” And so, I’ll chase these “difficult” books round perdition’s flames before I give them up.

Coming up Next: Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Ulysses by James Joyce

The Summer of Difficult Books
Book 1 – Ulysses by James Joyce
783 pgs. (Vintage edition)

Difficulty Index:
Length: 8/10
Diction / Syntax: 10/10
Stylistic Features: 10/10
Background Knowledge Required: 10/10
Era: Modernist

Parts 1-3: Telemachus, Nestor & Proteus

It has been 22 years since I first tried to tackle this behemoth novel. At that time, having just graduated from college, I was eager to test my newly christened reading skills by heading for the most difficult of waters. I was working at a bookstore, and, having changed my major from pre-Med studies to English due to the effect of Joyce’s autobiographical romp, The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and the feeling of being robbed by not being allowed to enroll in a college class that focused solely on this much more difficult book, I picked up a copy (with employee discount) and lifted anchor. I got 150 pages in and suddenly realized that I was at sea. I had no idea what I was reading, what it meant, and how I could discover its hidden treasures. I put the book back on the shelf, vowing to myself that I would attempt another reading, with a self-imposed deadline of turning 50. What I would come to realize over those ensuing years is that Ulysses is not a book that one can merely “read.”

I am now 44 years old, twice the age when I first attempted that fateful voyage into this celebrated tome. There were six years left in my own reading timeline (not that I really felt the need to stick to it). With age came wisdom and experience. In essence, I became a man who could look back at the mistakes that young Terrance made and try to steer him in the right direction. I became a symbolic father to myself. And now, as a teacher of English, I also became a symbolic father figure and mentor to hundreds of children who struggle with reading and writing. Watching my charges struggle with multiple meanings of words, regional dialects, stream of consciousness, complex sentence structures, and other difficult aspects of literary texts, I was brought back to my own struggles, and felt that I was perhaps ready to try again.

A final impetus for embarking upon this journey anew was that I would have companions on the trek, a crew, if you will. Having heard of my goal of reading difficult books this summer, the father of one of my students, a teacher himself at another nearby school, invited me to join him and a few of his colleagues to a Ulysses book club they were planning. As of this writing, we have not yet met to discuss the book. I could have waited to post this essay after our meetings, but instead decided that this writing should address my experiences on the journey alone. What I found, which will be a surprise to very few people, that the book is simply out of reach for me, and likely for the majority of readers in this era. At times it may have seemed like a lush spit of land on the horizon as my arms, legs, eyes, and spirit were giving out, but I would ultimately be pulled out with the riptide, losing hope, stamina, and time in the process.

Part 4: Calypso

I am a lover of books. I’ve heeded the sirens’ call of literature for as long as I can remember. And, as mentioned earlier, it was one of Joyce’s own works that forever altered the course of my own story. Upon reading Portrait, if you’ll forgive the Hollywood-like single word abbreviation, I realized that books were far more than mere entertainment. They could be read again and again, yielding more reward with each return trip, opening up new vistas and lanes to other books, myths, and lore that lay embedded in allusions and jokes. I “got” Joyce, and I felt as if I were in a small and elite group of people who could make that claim. Since that time, I have read many difficult books. I’ve read and adored the stream of consciousness masterpiece of The Sound and the Fury. I’ve gladly immersed myself in the vast waters of the epic Underworld. I’ve been shaken to my very core by One Hundred Years of Solitude. I’ve maneuvered the dream-like state of The Unconsoled. I’ve lived the many lives of The Brothers Karamazov. I’ve made a significant dent, at least more substantial than most people I know, in the “canon,” the almighty list that exists in its varied forms of “the books one should read.” In fact, I’ve read 35 of the Modern Library’s “Best Books of the 20th Century” list. And before you call that a failing grade, look at the list yourself and see if you fare better. By the way, #1 on the list is, you guessed it, Ulysses.

Part 5: The Lotus-Eaters

Having made the decision to set sail, I became intoxicated with the idea of the journey. My intoxication was only deepened by the fact that my journey was serendipitously beginning on June 16, the day in which all of the events of the novel take place, a day now known the world over as “Bloomsday.” My first goal was clear: I wanted to at least eclipse the page count I had once reached at half my age. Due to my fevered rush to make some headway, I ventured in without the measured expertise that another score and two years of reading experience had brought me. Luckily, for the first three sections, I experienced mostly glassy seas. The first three books that make up the “Telemachus” section, focusing on Stephen Dedalus, the main character of the “book that changed my life,” were, comparatively as I would soon learn, navigable. Because of this, I was lulled into a sense of overconfidence.

Part 6: Hades

At this point, I should back up and give some larger overview on the novel itself, if one can even call it by that too limited name. Ulysses is the story of one day in the lives of two men, Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus. The latter character bridges the gap between novels by our intrepid Irish author, while the former is the Odysseus analogue. To further explain that allusion, Joyce specifically set out to create a sprawling and difficult book, one that echoed Homer’s Odyssey in structure, changed style and structure in each section, and intentionally conflated the everyday events of one day in Dublin with the epic voyages of Odysseus and his son, Telemachus. Joyce was even quoted as saying, about the difficulty of the book, that he "put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant." In other words, Joyce was a bit devilish in nature, creating a novel that was intentionally difficult, meant to confound and challenge its readers, as well as remain inaccessible to all but a very small percentage of those who spent the time and effort to decode it.

Part 7: Aelous

As I progressed, I realized that my limited knowledge, as inflated as I thought it was, was not enough to keep me afloat. Here are a few of the things that I realized I needed knowledge of in order to get a full experience of the book: Latin, French, Gaelic, Hebrew, Catholic orthodoxy (a lot more than I was brought up with), an understanding of the “Classics,” an understanding of classical music in turn of the century Ireland, an understanding of Irish history, an understanding of Irish life at the turn of the century, an understanding of the styles and history of British literature, and an understanding of the literary landscape at that particular time and place. There was no way, in one summer, that I could have met all of these requirements. I had to make other plans. I had to course correct, and quickly.

Part 8: The Lestrygonians

I was starting to doubt my ability to complete the journey. I’ve done this before, with books as well as with life. I remember driving cross-country by myself to take a new job on another coast. I was terrified. A little over halfway through with my expedition, I succumbed to doubt, loneliness, and insecurities. This reading journey was similar. I became lost in my thoughts (which became annoying at times as it meant I would have to either go back and reread certain paragraphs or just chalk up those lost sections to being casualties in the process of great art). Questions began to fill my brain. Does great art have to be complex? Just because many don’t understand a work, whether a book, a film, a song, a painting, or anything else, does that inaccessibility make it great? I had decided long ago in my own life, and ultimately became what I teach to my students, that judgments could not be made until the effort was put forth.


Part 9: Scylla and Charybdis

I made a hasty retreat. Or, at least, a quick shoring up of my resources and available guides. I had a literary criticism book, considered to be one of the most expert on the subject, by Stuart Gilbert. That book was at one time invaluable, providing me with the skeletal structure of the book (pictured) and overall analysis. Mostly, it provided me with a needed connection to The Odyssey. I decided to catch up in the literary criticism guide and then subsequently read each corresponding analysis after having read the chapter in the main tome. Additionally, I decided to reread The Odyssey. I tried to match the books section for section and pair corresponding sections in each with further reading. Finally, I found a website that provided annotations for the book (Found Here), which mostly turned out to be translations of the different languages in the book, but not much more. Armed with these provisions, I set out once again, buoyed in confidence, at least for the time being.

Part 10: The Wandering Rocks

Overall, what I ended up clinging onto the most throughout my reading of Ulysses were its characters and the language. Mostly I enjoyed the way the characters would weave in and out of each other’s lives, from a bar to a funeral procession, from a newspaper office to a brothel. I got the sense, as I did when reading Portrait, that these were real people, fully characterized and with distinct personalities, even if simply supplied with a name and dialogue (albeit sans quotation marks). Another aspect of Ulysses I enjoyed was Joyce’s humor. It is said that one can read the novel as one long joke. I didn’t understand it to that depth, but I did enjoy his many puns and turns of humorous phrase such as, “Once you are dead you are dead. That last day idea. Knocking them all up out of their graves. Come forth, Lazarus! And he came fifth and lost the job” (105). Additionally, “Sandwich? Ham and his descendants mustered and bred there. Potted meats” (171). More than I anything, I tried to appreciate the broader view of the novel, instead of becoming caught up in the minutiae. I appreciated the spiritual father and son nature of Bloom and Dedalus. I enjoyed the idea of exaggerating the importance of one day in the lives of a couple of punters to the scope of an epic, heroic journey. The idea in itself is majestic, even if I could not understand the parts broken down of the sum.

Part 11: The Sirens

At a certain point, particular sections (Cyclops, Oxen of the Sun, etc.) became too unwieldy, too oppressive in their scope, and too daunting in their scope for me to continue without respite. So, as often happens when taking on a project that takes up a majority of my time, other pleasures of life began to call to me: records that needed to be played, crosswords that needed completing, walks that needed to be taken, other books that demanded my attention. And so, I listened. I had recently picked up a copy of Richard Price’s The Whites as part of a podcast book club and was eager to read it. The book ended up being the perfect respite from an arduous task. It was easy to read, and yet at the same time stylistically rewarding. I needed to somehow feed my starving sense of accomplishment, and this book provided that nourishment, giving me the strength to carry on as before, to make the last few efforts necessary in order to reach the intended goal. I have never before run a marathon, but I have heard others speak of the last few miles and how they can almost seem alternately the strongest and the most unconscious parts of the run.

Part 12: The Cyclops

I had come too far. At this point, I had to finish simply to finish. It didn’t matter that I didn’t get Joyce’s oh so precise parodies of Malory, the King James Bible, Bunyan, Defoe, Sterne, Walpole, Gibbon, Dickens, and Carlyle. I wasn’t about to go back and read their collected works, become so utterly familiar that I could spot their styles anywhere, only to likely get a subtle nod of recognition and a “Well played, James” in response to his genius. In other words, I knew I was licked. I knew that I was likely never going to be in a place in my life in which I was going to ever fully comprehend this book. All I could do to save my bruised and broken ego, dashed up on the rocks of each harbor, was to simply read it until its conclusion, understanding or no understanding, and the latter was the safest bet. Sometimes, in the absence of finishing well, there is only to finish, and this was my choice.

Part 13 & 14: Nausicaa / The Oxen of the Sun

My mind started to wander again. I began to think of the other times in my life in which a long period of time had been spent in vain. My mind continued to wander, thinking of the times I had consumed something, whether a book or a movie, that I knew I could only visit once, never to return again, whether because I knew that a second visit would yield less fruitful results, or that my psyche simply couldn’t take another trip. I wondered why I had failed. While I had ultimately succeeded in completing the book, I certainly hadn’t succeeded in understanding it in the way that Joyce and scholars had meant for it to be understood. What more could I have done? I suppose I could have found a class and audited it or registered for it. I suppose I could have extended my deadline and started to reread Joyce’s other works, mining for meaning. I suppose I could have read more of the “canon.” After letting my mind wander in this way, I realized that I could never do it all. Is my understanding of the book within the realm of human possibility? Yes, most assuredly. Is it within the realm of human possibility without sacrificing the other pleasures in life that I enjoy? Other books? Music? Films? Crosswords? Coffee with friends? Exercise? No, most assuredly not.

Part 15: Circe

In anticipation of my teaching of The Great Gatsby this past year, I revisited T.S. Eliot’s epic poem, “The Waste Land.” It is a masterpiece of a poem, and if not in length and scope, at least in intellectual depth as challenging as Joyce’s works. The poem itself is a scathing criticism of the lack of culture and education in his contemporary climate. The avalanche of allusions was meant to leave on thinking, “If I don’t get this, there is likely something wrong with my education.” Eliot and Joyce were brothers from different mothers. About Ulysses, Eliot is quoted as saying, "The next generation is responsible for its own soul; a man of genius is responsible to his peers, not to a studio full of uneducated and undisciplined coxcombs." Well then, call me a coxcomb because I just couldn’t spend the time needed to fully understand it. I will never have the education that Joyce or Eliot had. However, I refute Eliot’s claim that I am a “coxcomb,” which is essentially a vain and conceited man. I did not come in to this project vain and conceited. I knew my limitations. I sought help. I looked for guidance. I waited for the years of experience that age could bring, and yet, I still failed. So, I come to the shores of Ithaca, hat in hand, ready to receive Just punishment, just not berating from a place of arrogance and privilege. So, up yours, Eliot! I don’t need to take that from a man whose name is an anagram and a near exact reversal of “toilets.” And frankly, I think Joyce would have really enjoyed that wordplay, you piece of shit.

Parts 16-18: Ithaca & Penelope

So, what did I learn? I learned that books that are dubbed challenging are indeed challenging. I learned also that I have my limitations and that I am accepting of them. I learned to cling to the things I did understand and not worry so much about what I did not understand. (Usually, those things were fairly inconsequential). I learned that sometimes people equate complexity with genius, but that doesn’t mean the work is enjoyable. I suppose I knew this going in, but I needed to experience it for myself in order to fully comprehend. Not every journey is fulfilling. Not every journey is rewarding. But every journey is an accomplishment, but sometimes the accomplishment is merely finishing, returning home having lived through the difficulty.

Coming up next: Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Random Records - 4. The National - "Boxer"

The National
Beggars Banquet
(obtained from Amazon)
Best Song: "Gospel"

Another look at a random record. As warned with earlier essays, these ramblings could have very little to do with the album selected. Rather, the record could act as a springboard to other ideas, which this essay very much does. 

As a lover of popular music, for lack of a better term, I can look back at several milestones in half of a lifetime of listening, collecting, and reviewing that have served as monumental shifts in my experience. Some that stand out include my first vinyl record, my first CD, the change in taste from Top 40 to “alternative,” first concert, first iPod, etc. I can’t rightly say that all of these shifts were for the better, but there’s no denying they happened. The waves of technology and progress are but segments of an undimmed tide that either push one to the next shore or further out to sea.

Though The National’s 2007 album, Boxer, was not necessarily the one album that signified the shift from CD to download for me, it was and is a symbolic artifact of what was lost in the shift. While we at one time lamented the loss of the majesty of album cover art that was 12” x 12” with the oncoming of at first cassettes and then CD’s, I heard very little about the loss of liner notes and especially lyrics with the jump from CD’s to digital downloads. Additionally, as with most other consumable media, music became an à la carte concern.

Let me tackle the latter part of that first. I recently had a discussion with a friend about albums, and the time we used to spend with particular albums, to the point now at which we will hear a song on one of our devices and have been conditioned to hear the next song from the album follow close behind. For instance, I cannot hear Prince’s “When Doves Cry” without expecting to hear “Take Me With U” directly after. There are hundreds of albums I have experienced in this way. We don’t have that same kind of experience with music. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not.

On some token, songs are taken in individually and assessed on their own merits. On the other side of that argument, we have to consider the purpose of albums. Are these songs meant to be taken in as a larger piece of singular art, or are they just songs recorded at one time and presented in a conglomerate without much thought? I’m sure we can think of albums that can be put into one camp or another. Boxer is, in my mind, the category of a larger piece of singular art. All of the songs fit together thematically, lyrically, and sonically. Listening to the album in sequence brings me back to my childhood and those giddy expectations of when a particular song would be telegraphed by the end of another.

Additionally, I used to be able to memorize every song title in my collection of physical albums. I used to know, say, that the Smiths song that everyone loved was called “How Soon Is Now?” while many of the digital downloaders who hear it think sometimes that the song is titled “I Am Human.” I used to know that the last three words in Simple Minds’ big hit, “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” were parenthetical. (I guess I still do). I used to know that the Who song was “Baba O’Riley” and not “Teenage Wasteland,” that it was “Space Oddity” and not “Major Tom.” But, maybe that’s just a case of being a nerd and not really of having physical artifacts of music. I can’t help but think, however, that perusing the tracklisting and liner notes added to the experience.

This brings us to the nature of the loss of lyrics. But wait, you’re saying, what about all of those lyric sites on the Internet? Yes, what about them? They are crowdsourced, like a lot of things that probably shouldn’t be, and therefore are wrong more often than not. For decades, we have been getting lyrics wrong, but at least we often had lyrics printed on the inner sleeves of records to settle arguments and gain clarity. We all have our own stories of mistaken lyrics, from the funny misunderstandings to the ones that you heard for years, only to reject the actual lyrics because they don’t match your collective experience and connection to the song. But then there are some that just don’t make sense. Another friend recently mentioned something about that “Captain of Trees” song. Needless to say, I was dumbfounded. “Captain of Trees”? It turned out that he was referring to a-ha’s “Take On Me,” and was mishearing the lyrics “in a day or two.” In his defense, Morten Harket’s voice reaches a note that makes lyrics difficult to decipher during that line, but “Captain of Trees”? Another time, a student, perhaps inappropriately, pointed me to a YouTube video that interpreted a line from Jay-Z and Alicia Keys’ “Empire State of Mind” (“where dreams are made of”) as “wet dream tomato.” These are ridiculous examples, but sometimes the misheard lyrics make some bit of sense, such as when a good friend thought that “Voices Carry” by ‘Til Tuesday found Aimee Mann singing “Hush hush / Keep it down now / This is scary.”

The combination of these lost elements led me to have a singular experience with Boxer. I first heard the album digitally, did not pay attention to the song title display, and listened to a song with a lyric that I found odd, but intriguing. I had a small obsession with the song and the strange lyric:

“Your mind is racing like a pronoun,
Oh my God, it doesn’t mean a lot to you,”

I had yet to see that the song title was simply “Racing Like a Pro” and that the real lyric was “Your mind is racing like a pro now.” I imagined that because pronouns are shorter than the nouns they are replacing, that they tend to help people race through sentences. I imagined that it had a link to the next sentence with two simple pronouns of “it” and “you” as well as a personal pronoun of “my.” I started trying to deconstruct the song and that lyric specifically. What was the “it”? Was “it” the aforementioned “mind”? Who was the “you”? Is it “me”? Is it someone else? Why are the pronouns racing? I can’t say I got anywhere meaningful, but I really liked the sound of it. I really liked the idea of parts of speech being able to have lives of their own. Once I bought the album on vinyl, I couldn’t decide whether I was disappointed in the actual lyric or disappointed that I had allowed myself to be misled for as long as I had because of the nature of digital music.

Since that time, vinyl has seen a resurgence in popularity for those aficionados who either prefer the sound, the collectability, the aesthetic of the artwork, the lyrics, the sequencing of songs, or perhaps a combination of any of the above. That’s not to say that vinyl is for everyone. Plenty of people are just fine with listening to songs as disparate units without any connective tissue or tangible ephemera. I am hoping that with vinyl, I can once again make those deeper connections with my favorite music, and gain back what was lost with the onset of downloading.

I haven’t written much about the nature of Boxer and its music, but that wasn’t the intention here. It will suffice to say that I love this album, that it is my favorite album from The National, and that I highly recommend these songs as some of the most gorgeous examples of somewhat more meditative anthemic rock out there. While Alligator may have brought The National to my attention, Boxer gave me the knock-out punch, making me a lifelong fan. But, there I go, racing like a pronoun again…

Friday, March 11, 2016

Random Records - 3. Depeche Mode - "Music for the Masses"

Depeche Mode - Music for the Masses
Sire Records
(acquired at Silver Platters in Northgate)
Best Song: "Never Let Me Down Again"

My students claim I’m a hipster. They may be right. It’s easier to just acquiesce to their perceptions than it is to provide a cohesive refutation. Do I listen to a lot of music that my students have never heard? Sure. Do I try to dress well? I try, though I always think I can do better. Do I collect vinyl? Well, since that’s what these articles are all about, yes. There are a lot of stereotypical hipster activities in which I do not take part, but in the eyes of my students, I am, and therefore I have resigned myself to that fate. I remember playing a song for my class by the Scottish band Frightened Rabbit, and having all of them stare at me in confusion upon telling them the band’s name. Is it that I listen to weird stuff, or is that they are 17 and have a limited perspective? I'll let you decide. 

As a music connoisseur, I have a list of bands in my accessible memory that could easily be considered “the bands I hold in high esteem.” They may not be my favorites, but they are ones that I respect, admire, and understand their gravitas in the rock canon. These bands have grown on me over time. The Velvet Underground, Bob Dylan, Nick Cave, Bruce Springsteen, and Sonic Youth are all artists that grew on me over time. But, are these the bands that I look to first when selecting a record with which to unwind? Not usually.

The records I look to first are those that had a significant impact on me in my formative years. The records I look to first are those that moved me emotionally. The records I look to first are those that came from bands that shaped my eventual fledgling tastes in music that would stay with me for the rest of my life. So, when Music for the Masses by Depeche Mode came up as the third random record in my ongoing survey, I was immediately transported back to a time when music was not just a distraction or background noise. I was teleported to a time when music felt as much a part of my life as breathing.

Every day at my school, I see kids wearing headphones. There are the kids with the over-ear headphones, blocking out the rest of the world: hallway warriors creating their own private worlds. I see kids with earbuds hanging out of the inside of their shirt collars like uncut store tags, or draped over their ears as reminders that their music is still physically close to their aural cavities, despite their being inert. The teacher I am shakes my head at their inability to distance themselves from their devices. The nostalgic teenager in me connects with them on a level I didn’t expect, remembering the music that was so much a part of my life in high school.

One of the albums that will be forever cemented in my teenage years is this sixth album from Depeche Mode. Released just two days before my 16th birthday, it pressed all the buttons of my teenage psyche. From the betrayal of friendship in “Never Let Me Down Again” to the Nietzschean nihilism of “Nothing,” DM played to both the young adult fantasizer and the burgeoning thinker. Though I will often rightfully claim that Violator is Mode’s best album, Music for the Masses is that rarest of albums, the one that made an impression in a particular time and a particular place. While there are plenty of touchstone books and movies that appeal to the mind being transformed from adolescent to nascent adult, this is one of the few albums I can pinpoint as being transformative in my youth.

With this album, Depeche Mode challenged my ideas of sexuality. I wondered if singer Dave Gahan and main songwriter Martin Gore had a relationship beyond just bandmate or friend after hearing “Never Let Me Down Again.” There was just something about Gore’s plaintive background vocal of “See the stars, they’re shining bright / Everything’s alright tonight” that made me think there was more to that union. I wondered what “Strangelove” really meant. “Master and Servant” was a bit more on the nose, but this song made me contemplate different forms of relationships. “Little 15” was borderline creepy, and it would be quite a few more years until I would read Lolita, but I am still not sure I am fully understanding the impetus of this song.

With this album, Depeche Mode challenged my ideas of imagery and longevity. Before the album was released, “Strangelove” was released as a single a few months prior. The record had a close up image of a red speaker with the letter G and the number 13 dominating the space. As time went on, I saw the speaker motif repeated through other single releases as well as the album release. I came to realize that the G 13 was part of “Bong 13” and that DM had been numbering each single with a kind of internal “catalog” number. This immediately appealed to the collector in me that would be tempted to then fill in the rest of the catalog to be “complete.” I loved everything about the construction of the concept. And this brings me back to the idea of my being called a hipster.

To this day, I am not sure whether or not Depeche Mode is a hipster band. I have friends who I could argue are more “hipster” than I am who revile them. To these friends, DM is the Coldplay of our generation. They may be right. I don’t think I have the proper perspective to judge. I think DM are a bit more artistic, creative, and daring than Coldplay, but I am too close to it. Some may think of Depeche Mode as one of those “alternative radio” bands that never hit the mainstream in a way it really could or should have. Some may think of them as being one of the biggest bands of the 80’s and early 90’s, selling out huge arenas in the wake of this album. Their documentary film, 101, shows a sellout crowd at the Rose Bowl, one of the highest capacity venues in Los Angeles.

Considering the title of the album, this is exactly what Depeche Mode was trying to do. They wanted to appeal to everyone. This was indeed an attempt to create “music for the masses.” Amazingly, they never had a US or UK number one hit. They hit on the alternative and dance charts, but never on the mainstream pop charts. So, were they a hipster band or a mainstream, sellout band? Or something else entirely? Though there are some bands from my youth that I may consider a “guilty pleasure,” Depeche Mode is not one of those bands. I will always revere their music, seeing it not only as an expression of sheer joy, but also as a reminder of sixteen-year-old me, a hallway warrior, mouthing:

“What am I trying to do?
What am I trying to say?
I’m not trying to tell you anything

You didn’t know when you woke up today”